Apart from being enjoyable and enriching the soul, music has a story. While many of our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are familiar and well-worn, there are still stories to be told about where our music comes from and why it matters. This fall I (Mitchell) delighted in taking my church on a journey through some of my favorite music written for handbells. I’d like to explain some of the fascinating meaning and history embedded in this music, hoping that it will enliven your worship and provide some insights for the journey.
Amazing Grace (follow link to watch video)
Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of Amazing Grace is inexplicitly linked with the story of the transatlantic slave trade and is more nuanced than many people know.
While his mother hoped that he’d join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a plantation in Sierra Leone. He was later freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.
In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.
After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. (Saul of Tarsus, anyone?) Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and led several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans. (Despite the well-known refrain about “the hour I first believe”, Newton described his faith as a more gradual experience. “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards,” he later wrote)
In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends were a part of the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by clergy. Inspired by texts of legendary hymn writers Isaac Watts (e.g. “O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (e.g. “Angels We Have Heard on High”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, “Amazing Grace” was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, New Britain, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)
Despite the dramatic story told in movies and plays that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God, it was not until 30 years later—in 1788—that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things and Newton’s life was certainly complicated. However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact that justice and redemption take time. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much later. Luckily he lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807, which finally abolished the African slave trade.
How are systems of injustice still perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from recognizing systems of injustice that are clearly wrong? Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by organized and consistent efforts. This takes time. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficult of facing the powers that be:
Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (For the full story see Luke 18:1-8).
Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways in which our world is unjust and work toward mending the breach.
– Mitchell Eithun